BLOCK GATE - What is the Law Anyway?
YOU, like I, perhaps have read the ongoing tete-a-tete revealing itself in the pages of Facebook. Like many posts, the Wildwood skirmishes may also be duplicated on Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and even perhaps VK in Europe and even on Sina Weibo in China.
For those not up to date on the vacillating bouts in Wildwood Politics. In one corner is Bow-Tie Bowlin (Wildwood Mayor Jim Bowlin, who has either attempted to make wildwood politics more accessible to the masses, or more restrictive, depending on who you talk to.) In the other corner are City Council Members Woerther and Dillard. The Woerther / Dillard corner is a bit crowded, as both their wives have decided to be vocal and speak on these issues, supporting their husbands and throwing the expected volleys at Bowlin. Kudos to them for supporting their spouses! They must be lovely people. And to be completely fair, I do support Mayor Bowlin's bid for re-election in 2020.
At the heart of this issue is whether Jim Bowlin, who publicly promotes free speech, is secretly colluding with Mark Zuckerberg or even Vladimir Putin, and limiting or blocking his detractors’ comments from his electioneering campaign website. Bowlin states that he not. On the other side, are a small coalition of council members and their wives that states that he is. So basically, it is He said vs. He and his wife said!
What to believe? What are the facts? What is the law? I suspect when some read this next part, some will open their laptop and start sending emails and post comments that will cost the city money and cost you the readers of this election ‘reveal’, the fine residents of Wildwood, the taxpayer, money and time due to future frivolous lawsuits, ethics complaints, and time spend by staff and council trying to sort these things out.
What to believe? Who to believe? First, while those pictured and mentioned in this article may have differing opinions, they are not the only ones. One Facebook comment accused Wildwood Matters of being part of the ‘rest of misguided media”. So let me say…Hmmm, let me NOT try to defend or discuss the entire “media” – maybe that can be a future article.
What are the facts? The Mayor has a Facebook page that he set up to further his 2020 election campaign. In my opinion, he should NOT allow comments that detract from his message. Why would he want that? It is a private electioneering page. He should be able to have 100% editorial control over what is on there and is not. It is no different than any other commercial page. I can’t go on the Coca Cola Ad Campaign and paste a photo on front that I like Pepsi. At this point I would be remiss to not point out that the sugar and acid in soda is not good for any of you, and you should abstain for your own health.
Mayor Bowlin – did you know that if you hide comments rather than delete them, that commenters still see their posts and think they are still voicing their opinions, but no one else can see or engage with them? I am not suggesting this, as I don’t think you should allow those comments on your personal page but that was an instruction available on campaignsandelections.com . Also – you could delegate to a member of your election staff the authority to make those deletions, so you are personally not doing it?
So, what is the law? There are a lot of laws. Did you know it is illegal to eat a peanut butter sandwich on a street in a small western town while riding a white horse? Go there and try it! More related to the topic at hand, however… On January 19th an ACLU staff attorney, Vera Eidelman wrote an article, “Court Rules Public Officials Can’t Block Critics on Facebook”. She discusses an appeals court decision that states that an interactive portion of a public official’s Facebook page is a “public forum”. The article is quite in depth if you want to read something without my slant or sarcasm involved. My interpretation (that is what you are paying the time and money for here to hear!) is that an electioneering campaign page is different, dissimilar, unlike, divergent, disparate, distinct, and unrelated to/from a city sponsored web or Facebook page, or even on that which is the official website of the mayor. So, on the election’s website, anything goes and anything is only defined by the page owner. On the official site, IF there is an interactive section, anything goes, and anything is decided by everyone.
This paragraph is for the Woerthers and Dillards of the world. Politicians in every state have the ability and need to share policy and information. As campaigning becomes more and more an online discussion, those same politicians have the ability to block commenters on their sites. The law will determine if that ability is lawful. The first appeals decision to date says blocking is NOT allowed! For the purpose of the article that I referenced from the ACLU, that author filed public records requests with every governor and 22 federal agencies for lists of people blocked on the official sites. She asked for a list of blocked twitter accounts, all direct messages sent, and a list of all accounts blocked on the official Facebook accounts of governors. One might decide to do the same for officials in the city of Wildwood. I apologize in advance to city staff for planting this seed but it was already growing in the minds of readers! I will suggest that his can only be for ‘official’ pages, and not election campaign pages, which I am focused on herein.
So how to I wind up this long and winding road? Will there be sunshine law requests as a result of you reading this? Will you start blocking people that you are not currently? Are we stranded on the side watching as the city drives by? Will Mayor Bowlin have a challenger in the next election? Will it be a current council person? With it be someone’s wife? Will it be a former council person who lost her last council bid by a huge margin? Everything is yet to be decided. Everything is up in the air, except for one clear FACT. I am NOT running for Mayor in 2020, I do not even plan to play a mayor on TV. I do not plan to block anyone from reading this or commenting on it. (I don’t control the page anyway so party on!) Finally, love the City of Wildwood. Love the block you live on, but not the block on an official page. Love each other. Don’t love soda pop!
Jeff Levitt is a former Councilman and Special Correspondent for Wildwood Matters
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